Jays From the Couch looks into the chances of Justin Smoak repeating his 2017 success for the Toronto Blue Jays
Betting that a guy can sustain his performance after a career year is a risky move. As a fan, that kind of wishful thinking can lead to disappointment down the road. But I really, really like Justin Smoak’s chances of putting together a really solid 2018 season.
My argument is pretty simple (don’t worry, this is going to be one of my shorter posts). It hinges on three ideas:
1) Justin Smoak has been producing elite contact quality for at least three seasons.
2) Smoak’s breakout 2017 season was driven mainly by a reduction in his strikeout rate, itself the result of a less aggressive swing.
3) Smoak’s weak finish to 2017 (relative to his strong first four months) was driven mainly by weaker contact quality (the one facet of his game we probably shouldn’t worry about).
Justin Smoak has been producing elite contact quality for at least three seasons
This is the fact that kept the Blue Jays front office in Smoak’s corner throughout 2015 and 2016. The Jays bashed their way to the playoffs in each of those two seasons on the back of great hitting from guys like Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. In spite of those mashers, it was Smoak who led the Jays in xwOBA on batted balls both seasons. His contact quality is, and has been, elite.
Smoak’s breakout 2017 season was driven mainly by a reduction in his strikeout rate
From my perspective, the reason he hit so well in 2017 was that he combined that elite contact quality with a suddenly lower-than-average strikeout rate. His walk rate was solid, but very close to his career norm (10.8%). His ability to generate hit-producing (xBA on batted balls) and extra base hit-producing (xwOBA on batted balls) contact was very solid, as usual. The single most glaring difference between Smoak’s 2015/16 and his 2017 is that strikeout rate.
His improved strikeout rate doesn’t appear to have been the result of swinging at fewer bad pitches—he swung at outside pitches only slightly less often than his career norm (27.2 %). What seems to be a key factor is a more relaxed approach at the plate. As Russell Martin pointed out midway through the season:
“It just seems like he’s slowing the game down and picking up pitches really well. It’s definitely fun to see. He used to swing a little bit more at breaking balls. Now it looks like he’s letting the ball get a little bit deeper and trusting his hands. His swing is compact and smooth. Instead of trying to hit the ball 600 feet, he’s hitting it 420 feet, which is all you need.”
In a post I wrote on Smoak back in June, I mentioned that his average swing speed had slowed, from 63.1 mph in 2016 to 60.9 mph in early 2017, supporting Martin’s observation. [Unfortunately, Statcast doesn’t report average swing speed anymore.]
Essentially, it would appear that he replaced a long, forceful and early swing with a shorter, smoother and better timed swing. This more relaxed approach seems evident in his contact rates. In 2017, he was able to make contact more often, both on pitches inside and outside the strike zone. Importantly, that helped him cut down his whiff rate by a substantial amount.
Smoak’s weaker finish to 2017 was driven mainly by weaker contact quality
By mid-summer, just as Jays fans were getting comfortable with the idea of Justin Smoak being an elite hitter, his performance began to decline. Through the end of July, Smoak had produced a 155 wRC+. Then, over the last two months of the season, he only mustered an 89 wRC+.
At this point, the key question to think about is what drove that late-season decline: did he finally turn back into a pumpkin or was he just playing hurt (as the team has said)? A definitive answer won’t be found until the 2018 season starts and we see how he does. But my best guess today is that his late-season issues were more temporary than permanent, in which case we should be expecting another well above-average season from Smoak at the plate.
My justification is simple. His past hitting problems came from striking out too much. On the other hand, the one area of his game you could always bank on was his excellent contact quality. His late-season strength and weakness were the exact opposite—while he maintained an improved strikeout rate, his contact quality fell off a cliff. This might be wishful thinking, but these two facts seem to point to a temporary problem (playing through injury) much more so than a permanent problem (he became 2015-16 Justin Smoak again).
If he was truly just regressing to his past self, I’d expect to see that strikeout rate balloon. But it didn’t. Instead, it really does seem like the team is being honest and Smoak was just dealing with injury. Smoak continued to apply his improved plate approach throughout 2017, but may just not have been able to hit the ball as cleanly and with the same oomph he had been able to through the first two-thirds of the 2017 season. Whether any of this is accurate remains to be seen. But we are half way through a cold winter and this is the time to think about what happened in the past and what might happen in the future.
Smoak provides us with a good example of how important it is to dig beneath the top line numbers for more concrete answers. Sure, his late season production (89 wRC+) looks a lot like his 2016 production (91 wRC+). But the underlying causes seem different in each case, suggesting that we shouldn’t assume that Smoak’s improvements have already disappeared.
Instead, let’s focus on the fact that (including both the good times and the bad) Justin Smoak’s 2017 performance finally reflected the pedigree that came with being drafted 11th overall. He produced a 132 wRC+, good for 28th among qualified major league hitters. He produced a 3.4 fWAR, good for 58th in the majors and ninth among first basemen. Plus, he’s a Blue Jay for two more seasons for a total of no more than $12.1 million. Great production for a great price.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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